School board candidates: Area 2

Online-only answers to SN&R’s endorsements questionnaire

Below are the responses from the candidates for the Sacramento City Unified School District board in Area 2 to SN&R’s questionnaire about local education and school district issues.

What are the most important issues for schools in the area where you are running for office (Area 2), and what’s your plan to tackle them?

Andrea Corso: The most significant challenge facing Area 2 is a lack of high-quality schools. Parents in Area 2 face a dilemma between choosing private school, moving to a surrounding school district or fighting to get their child into scarce high-quality seats.

The other significant challenge is the consistently poor performance of the comprehensive high school in the area—Hiram Johnson. In my visits to Johnson this year, I do see signs of progress. We need to commit to put progress on a fast and sustained track to dramatic gains at Hiram Johnson.

Jeff Cuneo: First, the loss of discretionary monies that has affected the quality of educational programs at each local school. Area 2 schools lost monies that helped keep libraries open, pay for music and art classes and materials, and provide academic enrichment in reading and science. These monies have been partly made up by parent contributions, but it still has not met the ongoing needs of Area 2 students.

I plan to work with the superintendent to offset the total focus on the priority schools. I do believe that our area children deserve some of those monies to go toward their education as well. I know that the schools will never receive 100 percent of these monies back, but I will work to find an equitable solution that is good for all children.

Second, educational options at the high-school level are a primary concern. The area has many good to great options at the elementary school level. But there exists no comprehensive public high school. Many parents send their children to private schools and/or out-of-district schools, such as Rio Americano and Mira Loma. I have talked to parents who have moved out of the area because of the lack of good options at the high-school level.

I will advocate for a public comprehensive high school for Area 2 children. I will start a parent advisory group focused on the issue, and work with the other board members to find a suitable solution. I do not have a solution to date, but will work with the community and the district to find one.

Mary Hernandez: This is the first time Area 2 will be electing its own representative on the school board. I will work in collaboration to be a strong advocate for our children, parents and our community and will always be accessible. I would create an education improvement committee to advise me on issues impacting neighborhood schools, and build and use my current relationships to find common policy areas where we can advocate improving our schools. I have worked for 16 years building collaborations and have the experience and “know-how” to bring people together. The high-school issue is the most pronounced and will be my highest priority.

Give us your critique of the way the district has handled school closures thus far. What would you do differently? (Please be specific about school closures in your area.)

Corso: I appreciate process the district has taken around school closures. In SCUSD, we have to make tough choices to right-size our number of schools with our number of students. It is never easy to close a school site, but our most critical priority for scarce funding has to be focused on student achievement, not maintaining unused facilities.

Cuneo: The district has made some necessary but painful decisions about school closures. In my area, there have been no recent school closures. Whenever this issue arises, it is important to solicit community and parent input. I believe in two things in this area. One, that strong schools and strong neighborhoods are vital for one another. This is evidenced in my area by Caleb Greenwood and Theodore Judah. And school closures negatively impact the surrounding neighborhood.

The second concern is that schools must operate cost effectively. If they do not, then they drain resources that should go to other schools and schoolchildren. These two somewhat competing policy priorities will guide my analysis of school closures.

Hernandez: I serve on the SCUSD 7-11 advisory committee on facilities. We met over the summer to develop recommendations for district policies on closure and reuse of school facilities. These criteria, which are currently pending in front of the board, would establish a set of policies and procedures governing the use of school property and buildings, and would allow the district to evaluate school closures/reuse with a set of standardized guidelines to ensure both fairness and transparency.

How many SCUSD school board meetings have you attended? What grade would you give the current SCUSD board? Where do they lose points? What are they doing well?

Corso: Over the past three years, I have attended between 12-15 board meetings. I appreciate the decision of the SCUSD board to hire Superintendent [Jonathan] Raymond and to shift to a policy form of governance. I would grade the board a D, though, for a lack of progress on student achievement and fiscal stability. While all districts are facing the challenges of the state budget crisis, the SCUSD board has to commit to a realistic plan to manage the unfunded retiree health liability.

Cuneo: I have been to roughly six board meetings. I would give the current board a passing grade. They lose points in their inability to focus on academic achievement, community collaboration, especially in the more socioeconomically disadvantaged area, and to tell the superintendent where he is not doing a good job. They are doing well in supporting the priority schools designated by the superintendent and finding consensus on most issues.

Hernandez: I have not counted how many I’ve attended, but I have been attending meetings periodically since October of last year, including the meeting where the Facilities Use Agreement was approved for St. Hope Public Schools. I would give the district a B-plus for the work they have been doing specifically over the past year. The district overcame a serious budget deficit, successfully negotiated employee contracts with all labor organizations and hired a new superintendent. Specifically, President Ellyne Bell deserves praise for helping to lead the board in a positive direction, and is taking good first steps toward improving our schools in very tough times.

What letter grade would you give Superintendent Jonathan Raymond? Where does he lose points? What is he doing well?

Corso: I would give Superintendent Raymond a C. I praise Superintendent Raymond for his commitment to parent and community engagement. I also appreciate his focus on the priority schools. Superintendent Raymond loses points for the overall poor performance of SCUSD schools (compared to other schools in the state and region), as well as the lack of acknowledgement regarding how far we have to go in terms of student achievement.

Cuneo: I would give him a B-plus grade to date. I like the vitality and energy he is bringing to the school district. It needed a fresh, new approach. I like his commitment to the priority schools. He seems to be focusing in on the most needy of our children and trying to raise academic achievement in those areas. I support his efforts to document student achievement and attendance on an ongoing basis so we have an idea of where our students are doing well.

I do not like his all-or-nothing approach to the priority schools. As I stated, Area 2 schools and students were harmed by this policy. I think his management style needs a little work as he fails to take input from the community and parents before making decisions. His decisions then are met with resistance when, if he would have put in more work in the beginning, many of these persons would be working for his policies and decisions instead of against them. He does not return calls or e-mails promptly, and after an initial burst, has done little to reach out to the communities that are affected by his policies. I know parents that are very disappointed in him. But it is my belief that this disappointment stems from a communication failure rather than conscious policy choices.

Hernandez: In addition to my comments above, I would also like to point out that although Superintendent Raymond has made a good effort to visit school sites and hold community meetings throughout the district, in which I’ve personally attended three (Strategic Plan, Budget and Caleb Greenwood community meetings), he still has a lot of work to do to address student achievement and to ensure all children have the opportunity to access a quality public education.

What letter grade would you give the Sacramento City Teachers Association? Where do they lose points? What are they doing well?

Corso: I would grade the SCTA as failing (F). I have not seen SCTA be willing to productively discuss reforms that other teacher unions are engaging in around the country.

Cuneo: I would give them a B grade. I think they did well in coming to a new agreement with the school district that saved jobs and the education of their students. They did not have to enter into this agreement as their contract was in place for at least one more year. Teachers did the right thing by their students, who they don’t get enough credit for caring about and working for on a daily basis.

They do not communicate very well with the public or other institutional factors in regard to their positions and why they take them. They have not had to face this issue to date, but they will need to move toward a more nuanced and different system to measure teacher effectiveness and ultimately away from the seniority system.

I don’t always equate the leadership with the rank and file. I believe strongly that we need to support our teachers in the classroom in every budget decision and policy choice. It should not be just rhetoric. But at the same time, we need a better way to evaluate teacher effectiveness so that our students are our top priority.

Hernandez: Over the summer, SCTA negotiated with the district, along with the other employee organizations, a concessionary contract, and demonstrated their commitment to parents, students and education in these tough fiscal times. According to reports of the agreement, “[A]ll teachers would give up $950 a year in salary for the next two years so some of those K-3 teachers could be rehired and class sizes wouldn’t have to go up to 30.”

In addition, during a community forum I attended in the spring, parents who gathered in the elementary school multipurpose room (roughly 30-40) had a discussion around the school and its performance. One common theme that ran across all breakout groups was that parents appreciated the teacher-parent communication. Parents specifically expressed their appreciation for the efforts their child’s teacher made to ensure that they were talking about how well their children were doing in school.

What, if anything, would you do to increase parent involvement in schools and in their child’s education?

Corso: We have to take responsibility for increasing parent involvement. In our most successful schools, parents are required to serve volunteer hours at school. I think that we should explore this strategy for all schools. We also need to make sure that parents have a concrete way to contribute that adds immediate value for their children and the other students at the school.

Cuneo: This is one of my priorities. Parental involvement leads to improved academic success. We need to better involve parents in the education of their children.

I advocate for a systemic parent-involvement policy. The policy will be run from the school district office. It will identify a liaison at each school site. This person will be responsible for achieving identified metrics—hours, jobs, programs, money, etc.—for parent engagement. Each site person will outreach to the parents and designate a day prior to school where parents will come and discuss the parent-engagement issue. The parents will have expectations that they must meet. We will identify parents that need help meeting these expectations. Teachers will be brought in to educate parents about what to expect from their children at the particular school and grade level. Parents will be identified that need assistance in holding their children to those expectations.

The identified parents will be brought to local community organizations and other interested parents who will assist them in meeting their goals and learning about how to assist their child’s educational development. These classes can count toward the parent engagement metrics.

This will take a concerted effort and follow-up from the district office. The district office can provide community organizations that have parenting classes, as well as other assistance for these parents. They can then work with different community organizations to establish new classes based on need.

This is just one concept we can work on to include parents and expand their participation. In the interest of space, I will not include other, similar proposals I have in mind to focus parents at the center of our education system.

Hernandez: I would not only like to increase parent involvement but community involvement. One of the pillars of my campaign is to initiative an education improvement committee for Area 2 working with parents, teachers and administrators to develop innovative programs. Here we would identify and develop specific programs that can be initiated at the district in order to drive parent and community involvement.

What would you have done differently had you been on the board last spring, when the district and SCTA could not agree on cuts to teacher pay and benefits?

Corso: I actually think that the final resolution was a successful and necessary first step toward negotiating a sustainable teacher contract.

Cuneo: I would not have joined the heated rhetoric directed at teachers in our school district. I felt that the constant public-relations bluster from the district did a disservice to our teachers and made the union more reticent to sit down and negotiate.

I would have spoken to the union. As their endorsed member, I would have urged an equitable solution to the impasse. I would have reminded them that our priority is children and that the district is/was facing a deep budget deficit. When the times were good, teachers were rewarded to a higher degree than when times are difficult. It was time for the union to show the community where their priorities were—in the community and with their students.

Hernandez: Frankly, I do not know what was or was not done as part of the negotiations. I do not believe board members are directly involved in the negotiations; however, as a person who has committed much of her professional career to working in the labor community, I would lend whatever help I could to broker good faith bargaining.

What’s your opinion of the way the superintendent has managed the district’s “priority schools”? What would you do differently?

Corso: I agree strongly with the superintendent’s focus on priority schools. In observing the results at Hiram Johnson (the priority school in my area), I have seen great preliminary results. I think that Superintendent Raymond has made a strong start with the priority schools. As we measure results, that data will help us evaluate his choices.

Cuneo: I am supportive of the superintendent’s designation of “priority schools.” We need to focus on our most disadvantaged schools and make a concerted effort to elevate the academics at these schools. These students deserve our utmost support and, if elected, I would work with the superintendent to make sure that these schools succeed academically and as educational institutions.

I would have done a few things differently, however. As stated above, I would not have simply drained 100 percent of the discretionary funds away from other schools. I would have been more equitable in my distribution of these funds throughout the district. I do not know if I would have made such a strong break at the seventh school. There were a number of schools close to these designated schools in terms of test scores, and I do think we did those schools a disservice. This all-or-nothing policy could have been modified to a sliding-scale-type system where more schools could benefit from increased focus, attention and monies.

I would have also talked to the affected communities first before I went on the news and made the declaration. I believe that parents and students should have been told of the decision, the reasons behind it and why this decision was going to benefit their education before seeing it on the news or reading about it in the newspaper.

Hernandez: As mentioned before, he has a lot of work to do, and is currently working with the board to ensure the structure is in place and school principals are the right fit for the right schools.

Do you think it’s time to end or significantly change teacher tenure in Sacramento schools?

Corso: Yes. Teacher tenure is not good for students.

Cuneo: Yes, I believe a change to teacher tenure is something that should be considered. I believe a comprehensive, multimetric but fair system would be a good solution to this issue. We need multiple data and reference points to ensure that we’re as objective as possible and not focusing on simply test scores. We need to be fair to teachers because they are the most valuable asset of our school district. But, in the end, we need to ensure that all of our children are getting good teachers and that there is quality in the classroom.

Hernandez: As mentioned in one of the answers above, although some see teacher tenure as a significant problem, from what I have observed in meetings and conversations, parents have good relationships with their child’s teacher. I believe if data suggests that whatever the problem is that’s identified, the district should do what it could to initiate a healthy dialogue to problem-solve with stakeholders groups and parties involved. But unilateral imposition of district policy changes without regard to communication and other solutions that could be out there is not a style I promote.

Do you think teacher evaluations should be tied to test scores? Should students be given more or fewer standardized tests?

Corso: I am OK with the current number of standardized tests, but strongly advocate for interim district- and school-based assessments so that we can track student progress throughout the year.

Cuneo: No, as I stated in the last question, I do not believe teacher evaluations should be tied to test scores. Standardized tests are needed to effectively evaluate the progress of the students, the individual schools and the school system. However, I think we overvalue standardized tests to the detriment of everything else. We have become over-reliant on these tests in the way in which we judge school and teacher efficacy and progress. It has negatively affected curriculum in that our school day is now overly focused upon limited subject matters that effect test scores. Music, critical thinking, art and other needed subjects are forgotten or pushed aside in the name of higher test scores. This does a disservice to our children and their education.

Hernandez: No. There are so many factors that exist on what contributes to a child’s performance that tying to teacher performance without regard to other contributing factors is unfair. Teacher effectiveness should be measured through a holistic approach that uses classroom observation, student and parent evaluation, test scores, seniority, etc. Parents, teachers, students and principals should be part of the process that develops the method of evaluating teacher effectiveness. Teachers have a very challenging occupation, and the method of evaluating them should be a rigorous one that doesn’t rely solely on one measure.

What’s your opinion of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s interest in school board elections and in evaluating area schools?

Corso: I appreciate Mayor Johnson’s leadership with regard to our public schools. I would be concerned if a mayor was not interested and engaged in the governance and performance of local public schools.

Cuneo: I think that the mayor has a right to have his opinions and involve himself as he sees fit in the city’s institutions, including the school district. I take issue with the way he has involved himself. Instead of building relationships and collaborating with the current school board, our mayor decided to involve himself in the instant elections. In my opinion, the mayor should have been working with the school board and existing schools in an effort to improve our district. To my knowledge, this has not occurred.

Hernandez: He should focus on the many issues that the city of Sacramento faces, and work to build relationships with the current council members. In 2006, voters in SCUSD voted to have district representation for its school board. This vote of the people said that they choose to have a voice on a school board to address education in our area, local school board representation, not decisions by the city.

What’s your opinion of using the Sacramento High School facility to house Sacramento Charter High School? Should that building be put to another use, or should Sacramento Charter High school share the building with another program? Do you feel the district needs a new comprehensive high school in that area? If so, how should the district fill that gap?

Corso: Starting with the last question, I do not believe that the district needs a new comprehensive high school at this time. We do not have the number of students or the funds to justify another new comprehensive high school. The next time we need a comprehensive high school, I think that Area 2 should be a priority. I support the current use of the Sacramento High School campus. If, as a district, we had a space shortage, then I would absolutely support co-location on that campus. However, we are a declining enrollment district with excess facility capacity.

Cuneo: Sac Charter has the contractual right to use the facility for its educational programs. If the site is underutilized, I believe the school board should look into the issue of co-locating programs there. This could include a rigorous academic program at the site that fits the culture of the existing high school.

I feel that there is a real need for a comprehensive high school to serve East Sacramento children and students. This is communicated in every conversation I have with parents. I do not have a solution to this problem but am open to any viable option that would serve the needs of our local population. I will focus on this issue as a school board member and hope to work with my community and the existing board in finding a real solution for Area 2 students and parents.

Hernandez: School performance at Sac High is not the issue, as that program is doing very well to serve the students in it. Sac High has shown great commitment to its students and the parents of those students. However, the issue around Sac High is the underutilization of that campus. Recently, the school board voted to examine co-location of other programs on that campus, and I would work, in my capacity as a school board member, to develop a plan to balance the needs of our district’s resources with regard to the Sac High charter school and Area 2’s call for a comprehensive high school.